Business engagement is interaction between employers, vocational rehabilitation (VR), and other workforce development and education organizations that results in measurable improvement in desired outcomes for both parties. Engaging businesses is a key component in improving and increasing employment outcomes for people with disabilities.
Business engagement is interaction between employers, vocational rehabilitation (VR), and other workforce development and education organizations that results in measureable improvement in desired outcomes for both parties. Engaging business and industry is a critical component to training and placing job seekers with disabilities.
Business engagement can range from purely advisory interactions to long-term strategic partnerships. In a 2010 publication, the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce distinguished between a narrow advisory or transactional role for employers, and one based on “strategic partnerships” (Parker, 2010).
Approaching employers as high-impact strategic partners means looking beyond the immediate needs of a program or college and seeking ways to make local employers or industries competitive. It requires building ongoing opportunities for problem-solving and program development. Doing so requires approaching employers in a listening rather than an “asking” mode: less “What can you do for us?” and more “Where is your pain? How can we help in addressing your challenges?”
Effective business engagement bridges the gap between employer demand for an educated and skilled workforce, and the supply of workers with the necessary skills for the labor market. While many agencies, colleges, and workforce organizations are increasingly focused on engaging businesses in the design of education and training programs, research indicates that employers continue to struggle to find workers with the skills they need. Addressing this gap through business engagement is critical to the growth of the national economy and to ensure employment and advancement for all.
The public vocational rehabilitation (VR) system is poised to become the nation’s premier provider of careers for people with disabilities and of workforce solutions for business. By developing and executing innovative engagement strategies, the VR system and agencies add real value to businesses and to employment services for job seekers with disabilities.
A partnership with a VR agency can meet the following business needs:
- Access to a new talent pool of qualified candidates for employment.
- Access to a team of employment specialists and VR counselors with knowledge and expertise regarding the employment needs of people with disabilities.
- Guidance and consultation regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), accommodations, and accessibility.
- Disability awareness training.
- Consultation regarding Section 503 compliance and tax incentives.
- Creation and funding of a range of work experiences including on-the-job training and internships.
- Opportunities for collaboration with community colleges, community rehabilitation programs, and other organizations responsive to workforce needs of businesses.
For people with disabilities, a VR-business engagement model meets the following needs:
- Access to accurate, timely labor market information for use in career decision-making and planning.
- Increased opportunities for competitive, integrated work experiences prior to hire.
- High-quality job matching services.
- Increased personal interaction with hiring personnel.
- Access to job openings customized to individual needs and abilities.
- Higher-quality outcomes (wages, hours, benefits).
Developing robust relationships with business and industry can lead to positive outcomes for both the businesses and the job candidates. Business engagement ranges from purely advisory interactions to long-term strategic partnerships.
The following qualities distinguish engaged relationships with employers from narrow advisory ones:
- Continuous: cultivating long-term relationships, rather than episodic, one-time, or short-term transactions on an as-needed basis.
- Strategic: approaching business in the context of specific plans, opportunities, and objectives, rather than on a spot basis, when the agency needs assistance.
- Mutually valuable: solving problems and creating value for both sides of the labor market: businesses (the demand side) and VR providers and consumers (the supply side).
- Wide-ranging: engaging a variety of businesses by using varied methods to recruit and involve a large number, rather than relying on one or a few of the usual representatives.
- Comprehensive: engaging businesses in a variety of issues and activities ranging from program development and competency identification to consumer advising and placement, and policy advocacy on critical issues.
- Intensive: engaging businesses substantively and in depth, moving the conversations from a high level (“We need higher-skilled candidates”) to an in-depth dialogue about specific skill sets, long-term economic needs, and strengths and weaknesses of educational and VR programs in meeting them.
- Empowering: encouraging businesses to develop and assume leadership roles in pathway development and other initiatives; approaching potential partners from business at the outset of the process, rather than near the end.
- Institutionally varied: engaging business through a number of channels, including industry or professional associations, public workforce entities (Workforce Investment Boards, One-Stop Career Centers), chambers of commerce, labor-management training partnerships, and economic development authorities (Wilson, 2015).
Effective business engagement strategies are mutually beneficial for both the supply and demand sides. More broadly, business engagement strategies are useful for a number of reasons, including the following:
- Transactional: Effective business engagement strategies help to satisfy employer demand for an educated and skilled workforce. Successful outcomes include employers hiring qualified, work-ready candidates, further training for incumbent workers, and businesses and VR agencies jointly developing work-based learning opportunities for VR consumers and incumbent workers.
- Strategic: VR programs are aligned with business needs. Global markets and competition, persistent high unemployment, and rapid changes in technology make the need to understand employer demand in real time more important than ever. Engagement in education and workforce development also has longer-term benefits for both the business and the broader community. Through strategic investments, businesses can foster regional economic development that creates and sustains a loyal customer base.
- Demand: Current demand for skilled workers is not being met effectively in selected sectors, like healthcare and STEM, and businesses are becoming frustrated and underused, but over-consulted. Successful business engagement strategies address this issue at the core and focus on developing focused and coordinated discussions and partnerships with potential employers.
Employer Supports Overview
This toolkit provides information on ways that VR agencies can provide support for businesses that have employees with disabilities. The “Overview” includes examples of employer support functions and a self-assessment of Employer Support resources. “Models & Structures” reviews Employer Support functions and how they might be provided in the context of a VR agency. “Partnerships” provides resources on working with community rehabilitation programs as well as regional ADA centers, assistive technology projects, and more. “Competencies & Skills” outlines the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to provide effective Employer Supports; and “Additional Resources” features links to dozens of articles, fact sheets, and websites that can be shared with businesses.
What Are Employer Supports?
Employer supports are consultation and services provided by vocational rehabilitation (VR) in response to businesses’ needs to recruit, hire, train, advance, or retain employees with disabilities. While this definition may seem simple, it encompasses an array of potential activities.
Since employer support is provided in response to business needs, the level and intensity of interaction and how support is delivered varies. Some VR agencies contract out to community rehabilitation providers for most or all of employer supports. Other VR agencies employ business relations specialists, and then contract out for more individual intensive client employment services (e.g., job development, job creation, job coaching).
Finally, some VR agencies are staffed to supply all levels of support services to employers directly, with in-house job coaches augmenting services available from counseling and business relations staffs.
Consultation and services also vary by business. In some instances, they’re provided to meet the overall needs of an employer, and in other situations they might be requested to assist with a specific workplace issue.
Some examples of employer support functions that VR might address include:
- Finding qualified candidates with disabilities.
- Assisting with questions related to the U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Federal Contract Compliance Section 503 regulations.
- Providing disability etiquette training and training on the Americans with Disabilities Act for hiring managers.
- Solving issues related to the accessibility of technology.
- Touring a business to gain an understanding of culture, perform job analysis, etc.
- Offering assistance and resources in obtaining an American Sign Language interpreter for a job interview.
- Delivering on-the-job assistance to a manager who has concerns about socially awkward behavior that a new employee is exhibiting.
- Providing assistance to human resources when a long-term employee’s job performance begins to deteriorate.
- Assisting a hiring manager with providing accommodations to help with short-term memory loss for a new employee with a traumatic brain injury.
- Assisting a new employee who’s concerned about disclosure of her disability at her new job.
- Responding to a hospital’s interest in hosting a vocational training program by contacting a local high school to investigate starting a “Project Search” model.
Additional examples of employer support functions will emerge as you work to meet businesses’ needs to recruit, hire, train, advance, and retain employees with disabilities.
Employer Supports Self-Assessment
Should VR agencies rely solely on employer feedback to let us know how well we are providing support? Customer feedback is one of the most important ways to improve our services, and some example employer satisfaction surveys are available included in the Models and Structures section. But there are also internal steps we can take to evaluate the quality of our business services and employer supports.
The 32nd Institute on Rehabilitation Issues offers a Maturity Scales model that has application to self-assessment of employer supports. The Maturity Scales are 1) Approach, 2) Deployment, 3) Learning, and 4) Integration. These four maturity levels can be applied to any area of business relationships and support.
The general self-assessment questions related to the maturity scales are:
Approach: Do you have a plan?
Deployment: How is the plan set in motion?
Learning: How can you incorporate continuous improvement in your approach and deployment?
Integration: Are the plans and actions aligned with other business processes in the organization?
As you consider structures, functions, roles, and competencies for employer support, here are some questions that may help you design and improve your activities and outcomes.
- What is your overall strategic approach to providing support to employers?
- What is your capacity to provide services through existing staff?
- How do you allocate the budget to purchase employer support services?
- Have you assessed the availability and competencies of contract service providers?
- What is your strategy for identifying the kinds of services that employers need most frequently? What employer support services will you offer?
- How do you set statewide goals for employer support?
- Who in the organization can act as resources to business specialists and employers in the areas of assistive technology and workplace accommodations?
- How are your efforts integrated and coordinated with WIOA partners such as your Department of Labor, Workforce Development Board, and Governor’s Office of Business Relations?
- How are you communicating your plan for employer supports across all levels of agency staff?
- How are the roles and employer support functions of staff clearly defined?
- What kind of development opportunities are available to those professionals who provide employer supports? Are employer supports part of current training activities? Is there a specific curriculum for employer supports?
- How are you evaluating the efforts of business specialists and others charged with providing support to employers? Are these evaluation criteria part of annual performance appraisals?
- If contractors provide employer support services, how are they selected? Is information about their success with employers available for the informed choice of consumers? How do VRCs hold contractors accountable?
- How are resources for employer supports shared within the VR agency?
- How are services and expenditures for employer supports documented? Can this information be used for program planning and resource allocation?
- What method do you use to determine employer satisfaction with support services?
- How do you use the information that you gather from staff performance evaluations, contractor reports, and employer satisfaction methods?
- What kind of development opportunities are available to those professionals who provide employer supports?
- What is your approach to “damage control” if an employer is dissatisfied with supports provided by your agency?
- How do all levels of management demonstrate value for employer support services?
- How do you assure that employer support services can be accessed equally (or proportionally) statewide?
- How are employer supports integrated in the VR agency’s business engagement strategy?
- When using community-based providers for employer support services, how do you assure effective communication with VR staff?
Again, these questions are not exhaustive. They are provided to assist in developing an agency-wide approach to employer supports. As these questions are answered, new ones will evolve. For VR to become a trusted collaborator and strategic partner with business, we must never stop questioning and striving for attainable answers.